The endangered key deer population in the Florida Keys is facing a new threat that has already wiped out nearly 15% of the population since July – the new-world screwworm.
New-world screwworms can infect livestock and warm-blooded animals, which also poses a risk to locals’ pets. The screwworm larvae (maggots) enter a wound of a living animal and feed on living tissue, which can lead to infection, erratic behaviors, and unfortunately mortality. Overtime, if left unchecked, screwworm could wipe out the entire species.
The smallest deer in North America can only be found in the Florida Keys. They stand about three feet tall and only 800-1,000 deer remain. One of the biggest threats to key deer is road kills from drivers, which averages between 125 to 150 kills a year.
If screwworm spreads, it could cause millions of dollars in damage due to the loss of livestock. This is the first time in the past 30 years that screwworm has been seen in the US and 50 years since it has been seen in Florida.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), along with partnering agencies and community members have stepped up to the challenge with “all hands on deck” to stop the spread of screwworm and to save the endangered key deer from extinction.
If the infected deer are treated early, they can still survive. The Service has deployed over 16 anti-parasitic medication stations throughout the National Key Deer Refuge in order to protect the deer population. Cameras have been set up to monitor the deer. Additionally, weekly deer surveys are conducted to monitor populations.
To eradicate the screwworm flies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has released over 80 million sterile flies from 25 ground release sites on twelve islands and the city of Marathon. The sterile flies mate with the females and as a result, no offspring are produced. Over time, this will eradicate the presence of screwworm.
Members of the community have really taken this issue to heart and have contributed tremendously. Linda Douville, a longtime resident of No Name Key, joined a group of volunteers to support the effort.
“We greatly appreciate that the USFWS summoned the troops and is working hard on this problem. Our community is very active and concerned, as well. This would be a tremendous loss if we don’t stay on top of this and get it fixed. I’m in for as long as it takes,” said Linda.
So far, over 170 volunteers have been trained by the USFWS to assist with outreach and education efforts, deploy the medication stations, and deliver an anti-parasitic medication to the deer. Many volunteers went door to door informing residents about the presence of screwworm. Even a local small animal veterinarian hosted a free clinic to check the presence of screwworm on pets.
The situation continues on a positive path toward eradicating the screwworm in the Florida Keys, however, with confirmed cases as recent as January 5, the road ahead remains uncertain with regard to how long this incident will continue and the funding needed to sustain efforts. Despite these challenges, the response to the incident has been extremely uplifting and encouraging. Thanks to the collaborative conservation partnerships between federal, state and local agencies, NGOs and community members, we remain positive that the endangered key deer population will rebound from this outbreak.
To keep updated on this situation, visit: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/National_Key_Deer_Refuge/News_Releases.html or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.